OPINION: The plight of the modern-day racist

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of bigotry today is how it seems to take place primarily online or behind closed doors. 

By now, most people have seen the Coca-Cola Super Bowl commercial in which “America the Beautiful” is performed in seven different languages spoken in the United States today against the backdrop of the scenery and diversity of American society. In addition to the commercial itself, most people have also heard of the vitriolic reaction of many outraged Twitter users, all of whom seemed to take personal offense to the six non-English languages featured in the commercial.

The reaction on Twitter was to be expected. The Internet is an echo chamber of ignorance and racism, as we’ve seen before when Indian-American Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America and when Puerto Rican-American Marc Anthony performed the National Anthem at the 2013 MLB All-Star game. The impersonal nature of Twitter and Facebook allows the bigoted to speak their minds without an immediate threat of repercussion. This leads to these painful xenophobic spectacles following the broadcast of anything and anyone not conforming to the straight, white Christian archetype.

As a non-white, non-Christian American, I can easily say that I wasn’t all that upset by the online reaction to the Coca-Cola commercial. Unfortunately, as any individual belonging to a marginalized group understands, there will always be hateful, bigoted people somewhere in the world. What we don’t expect, however, is to find these people to be the very people we interact with on a daily basis.

Recently, a white friend mentioned to me in passing that when the commercial aired, the group of people she was with were outraged because “this is America” and “we speak English.”

Another friend, also white, related that an individual he was with used crude, offensive words to describe some of the ethnicities depicted in it.

I was struck by these accounts, both of which were from Mason students, because I have never heard such bigoted language in this part of the country. I went to a high school in which white people were considered a minority, the student population elected two consecutive gay class presidents, and it was just as common to hear Spanish being spoken in the halls as English. Like some other Northern Virginia natives, I naively assumed this level of tolerance and diversity was relatively constant across the region. Obviously, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I have never heard racist rhetoric said directly to me for an obvious reason: I have brown skin. What these anecdotes illustrate is that racist individuals will remain silent in front of the marginalized, but show their true colors amongst those like them.

Racism is just as alive today as it was a few decades ago. The difference is, racism has been forced out of the public sphere, but it still lives on and festers in private circles, unable to manifest as explicitly as it was once able to. Racists keep to themselves, silently cursing the multitude of languages spoken in the United States today, as well as ostracizing those who are different than them amongst each other while maintaining poker faces in the civilized public sphere. 

This exclusion of ideology from the public sphere is not only limited to racism. Sexism and homophobia face similar realities. On the surface, homophobia may seem to be dissipating, especially when looking at the sensationalism of the marriage equality cause by artists such as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, but this rhetorical tolerance in the public sphere means little when confronted with data that indicates that poverty rates are higher for LGBTQ adults than for heterosexual adults. In a study published by the Williams Institute at UCLA, researchers found that “24% of lesbian and bisexual women are poor, compared with only 19% of heterosexual women.” Similarly, the rhetorical condemnation of racist ideology in day-to-day interactions means virtually nothing for those individuals still subject to individual and systematic discrimination by defenders/protectors of an institution now confined to the private sphere.

I grew up speaking English and Urdu bilingually, with neither of them being my true first language. In my family conversations, one language always morphed into the other depending on the context, and I still find myself unable to fully express myself in either language by itself. Urdu is unquestionably an American language for both myself and for the millions of other Pakistani/Kashmiri/Indian-Americans living in this country, and I’m grateful to Coca-Cola for using their platform to indicate that we aren’t foreigners living in a foreign land. This is a nation built upon the idea of pluralism of ideology, faith, and speech. Those of us that speak non-English languages are, in fact, Americans in the truest sense.

The fact that our country lacks an official language is not an accident; rather, every single language we speak is by definition a national language.